The Wages of Political Realism

If political prospects were determined by results, Barack Obama would be cruising to re-election.  Universal health care is on the books—passed over Republican opposition as bitter as the opposition of southern senators to civil rights.  Financial reform legislation is also on the books, again passed over die-hard Republican opposition. He has given education reform a higher priority and stronger commitment than any president since LBJ.  Taking over an economy in a hole dug by massive, unaffordable tax cuts and a bacchanalia of deregulation, he has brought the commercial part of the economy back far enough that the stock market is as high as at its pre-crash peak.  Unemployment, always a lagging indicator, has, for now at least, held at around 9 percent—too high, of course, but far less than a recession of this magnitude might have been expected to cause.

But is anybody happy?  Not the Republicans, of course:  Only a return to the policies that plunged us into the recession would make them happy.

But not many Democrats either.  Why, they ask, didn’t Obama fight for single-payer health care, or at least for a public option?  Why didn’t he fight to let the Bush tax cuts expire on schedule last year?  Why won’t he fight for another economic stimulus?  Why won’t he fight to confirm Elizabeth Warren as head of the consumer protection office established by the financial reform bill?  Why hasn’t he closed Guantanamo Bay prison as he promised?  Why, asks one group of Democrats, hasn’t he driven Qaddafi from office as we did Saddam Hussein?  Why, asks another faction, are have we committed our forces in Libya at all?

Because that’s not how Barack Obama rolls.  He’s not a fighter, but a compromiser—or, to be more precise, a pre-compromiser.  Not for him the storming of an unsustainable beachhead on the left to match the unsustainable Republican beachhead on the right, then compromising somewhere in the middle.  Instead, he determines where the process will end—and establishes his position there.

He knew the votes weren’t there for single-payer or the public option—for pity’s sake, the Clintons couldn’t find the votes to bring a health care bill of any description to the floor of either house—and refused to expend political energy or capital in a vain Pickett’s Charge for the lost cause.  After uncharacteristically pledging to close Guantanamo Bay on his first day in office, he soon saw that while he had the power to close it, he had neither the votes in Congress to transfer Gitmo prisoners to the U.S. nor other countries that would accept them, and kicked the issue to the curb.  He sees that nominating Elizabeth Warren would hand a hostage to Senate Republicans for which they would demand a steep ransom.  He could have held firm on extending the Bush tax cuts—extending them would require the passage of legislation he could veto—but couldn’t get a second round of stimulus without going along with a temporary tax-cut extension.

Obama’s role as the great pre-compromiser goes back farther than his presidency.   During the campaign, for example, it was not Obama but Hillary Clinton who favored universal health coverage; he proposed covering only children at first.  Although as a state senator he had spoken against going to war in Iraq, he proposed not a rapid pullout from the country and region, but a gradual redeployment from Iraq to Afghanistan, and a phased withdrawal even from there.  In fact his entire campaign promised not a liberal refloresence but only change, from Bush policies and politics to, well, something better.

In fact, almost from birth, he has lived his life in the middle.  He was a child of a marriage between black and white parents.  He was born in America but with a name redolent of Africa.  And the permanent absence of his father, combined with the intermittent absence of his mother, forced him to look for parental guidance sometimes to his mother, sometimes to his grandparents.

The middle path has taken Obama far.  It took him from unpromising beginnings to Columbia and Harvard Law.  It overcame his brief tenure in national politics and the opposition of highly experienced rivals to catapult him to the presidency

It has worked for the country as well.  We rolled back financial regulation under Clinton; under Obama, we rolled it forward.  Bill Clinton started out favoring an end to anti-gay discrimination in the military, but had to settle for don’t-ask-don’t-tell in the face of opposition from the military and conservatives.  Obama is ending don’t-ask-don’t-tell with support from military leadership.  Universal health care has eluded presidents since Theodore Roosevelt; now we have it.

Could Obama have achieved a better outcome by staking out more liberal starting positions on, say, health care?  If he had demanded single-payer, could he have settled for a public option?  Could he have not given so much away to the pharmaceutical and health insurance industry?  Who can say for sure?  But the closeness of the final outcome, and the months it took to reach that outcome, suggest that Obama may have read the portents correctly: that the votes for a public option were never there, and that the virulent opposition of big pharma and the health insurance giants would likely have doomed reform to an early demise.  Instead of leading reformers in a heroic charge that might have failed, Obama pre-compromised—and won.

Obama’s caution has not only brought about good outcomes but avoided bad ones.  He avoided stepping into the trap of proclaiming laudable but unattainable objectives in Iraq and Afghanistan, and as a result we are on our way out of both places instead of waist deep in the big muddy.  He refused to commit the the removal of Qaddafi, who has proved to be more resilient than many experts thought, and so we are not part of what will almost certainly be either a prolonged and brutal Libyan civil war between almost equally distasteful rivals or a long, frustrating slog to rehabilitation and stability.

In his caution and pragmatism, Obama bears a resemblance to his hero, Abraham Lincoln.  We remember the Great Emancipator in bold colors and broad brushstrokes.  We don’t remember that before he freed the slaves, Lincoln would have compromised on keeping the country together and the slaves in bondage.  Before that, indeed until 1862, Lincoln supported a scheme called colonization, freeing the slaves but deporting them to colonies in Africa.  In fact, for Lincoln, pragmatism was a governing philosophy.  “The pilots on our Western rivers steer from point to point as they call it — setting the course of the boat no farther than they can see,” he told a senator as he contemplated the end of the war and re-uniting the country, “and that is all I propose to myself in this great problem.”

Pre-compromise has worked for Obama, but at a price: surrendering the power of aspiration and ceding it to the opposition.  People want to know the direction a leader is taking the country he wants to lead.  They want to know not only what a leader would settle for, not only the latitude and longitude of the likely destination, but where he would take the nation if he were unconstrained.  Almost by default, the Republicans have harnessed the power of aspiration, and ridden it to majority control of the House of Representatives, minority near-control of the Senate, and a decent shot at winning the White House—without any realistic shot of achieving the ill-advised policy objectives they proclaim.

Which illustrates the risk inherent in the politics of aspiration.  Aspiration can illuminate and serve as a beacon.  But it can also blind those who look at it too intently.  It can raise expectations beyond what can be achieved, and result in cynicism when problems turn out to be less simple than they imagined and less susceptible to simple solutions.  It can lead to outright disaster when leaders follow their own aspirational rhetoric.

The 2012 campaign will be a clash of governing philosophies.  But it will also be a contest pitting the mirage of aspirational rhetoric against the less thrilling evidence of accomplishment.  Adlai Stevenson campaigned—and lost—twice on the promise to talk sense to the American people.  Here’s hoping it works better for Barack Obama.

No comments yet. Be the first.

Leave a reply